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MLS players upbeat during first day of individual training but know more hurdles loom

Several teams returned to the pitch this week for voluntary individual training sessions, but players and executives alike are wary about calling it a “return to play.”

An Inter Miami coach wears gloves and a mask during the team's first outdoor training session on Wednesday. (Courtesy of Inter Miami CF)

Players across MLS participated in voluntary individual workouts at their team facilities on Wednesday, stepping foot on regulation pitches for the first time in 54 days. 

Four teams returned to training on Wednesday — Orlando City, Inter Miami CF, Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City. More clubs such as Nashville SC are expected to join this week under a new MLS rule that allows voluntary individual workouts under strict safety protocol.

The visual of players training on their team fields stirred excitement throughout the league, and some clubs fed that buzz by using hashtags such as #SoccerIsBack on social media.

But Nashville SC general manager Mike Jacobs emphasized patience as teams begin the long process of returning to match play.

“It’s easy to kind of get drunk on the whole euphoria of being like, ‘We’re back,'” Jacobs said. “The reality is this is not a return to play just yet.”

The return to training on Wednesday reflected the massive impact of coronavirus on everyday life. MLS protocol for these outdoor sessions outlines how to avoid contact that could potentially spread the virus.

Players receive designated parking spots at the club facility, with each car separated by at least three empty spots. Upon arrival, players undergo a screening process that includes a check of their temperature. Once they are cleared to enter the facility, each field is split into quadrants and players are required to remain within their assigned section.

Players must wear masks from arrival until they have reached their designated quadrant on the field. While training, players can’t physically interact in any way, including passing the ball or shooting the ball past anyone else.

This first day of training was unlike any players had previously experienced.

Nashville SC captain Dax McCarty said despite the limitations, he’s looking forward to using team pitches after almost two months of quarantine.

“Players have been missing those fields, missing the scenery, just missing the the smell of the grass,” McCarty said. “There’s a lot of, I think, cautious optimism and excitement that comes along with news like this. This is the first baby step towards hopefully getting back to a normal routine. … The best part about all of this is that we get to go back to our team facilities, which in my estimation are, in terms of the fields, some of the best in the league.”

Providing a safe playing surface was one of the main motivations behind this return to the pitch.

Before the new league protocol, players were finding any scrap of grass they could to train on — a backyard, a lawn at an apartment complex, local high school fields. These spaces were rarely regulated to the same level as a team facility, which meant players were training on worn-down, uneven and potentially unsafe surfaces.

Players were also often heading to public areas — such as parks or local public fields — that would open them to the possibility of being approached by strangers or fans. Jacobs said this put players at a higher risk of possibly being exposed to the pandemic. It was a challenge teams across the league faced, regardless of climate or density of their city.

“A lot of guys live in condos, so they don’t have access to parks, they don’t have access to green space backyards,” Inter Miami captain Luis Robles said. “For the most part South Florida, during this this self quarantine, [has] shut down all the parks. There just wasn’t the access that they needed in terms of space to do all the running to really say fit. So for us to be out here using this space is great. It’s nice to be back.”

As MLS looks to return to matches, Jacobs said the league will implement the return to full-team training in a series of phases. Intermediate stages could include small-group training and the use of indoor facilities such as weight rooms.

Jacobs said the league will track the ability of each club to implement protocol and maintain safety. This will be used as a benchmark for when and how to progress to the next phase.

“If we have any hiccups, the chance now is when we go back to square one, we actually would be further back in our ability to kind of return to getting games in the field,” Jacobs said. “So this is a really critical stage, not only for Nashville SC but for our whole league.”

Despite the excitement about returning to the pitch, the next steps for the league remain largely unclear for players, coaches and executives. The league has yet to announce how many weeks of full-team training would be necessary before a return to matches, although coaches and players such as McCarty suggest four weeks is the ideal.

One issue is the disparity in how different markets have been hit by the pandemic. Although some teams were able to take advantage of the new league protocol on Wednesday, others located in harder hit regions could not open facilities due to local government restrictions. 

For instance, as of Wednesday there were 19,415 COVID-19 deaths in the Bronx, the neighborhood where New York City FC holds matches at Yankee Stadium. That’s 134 times greater than the total number recorded in the entire state of Kansas, where Sporting KC plays. 

Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said his zip code had reported only seven cases when he checked it this week. It made him more confident leaving his home than players in other regions might have felt. As long as the disparities persist, it will be difficult for the league to return to regular play without moving players to different cities.

Besler said his focus is on playing as many games as possible. This could mean playing matches without fans, but the captain said his priority is making sure players have a say in how the season progresses.

“I’m confident that whatever does happen and whatever the solution is going to be, I think the players’ voices will be heard,” Besler said. “We all want to try and play as many games as possible and we want to finish out our season. I don’t know if that’s possible or what that could look like. But I can tell you that you know from both sides, we’re going to try and do everything we can to do that.”

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